Orson Welles’s adaptation of the Scottish play is a fascinating film, not one of his greatest but full of magic. It’s a magic, however, that comes and goes. It was shot in 23 days on a shoestring budget, and it shows. The sets look cheesy — many of them were left over from Westerns made at the studio — as do the many process shots. There are obvious lapses in continuity between shots, and lines have been looped in for actors who are obviously not speaking those particular words. Focus is not always precise, and there are a number of optical zooms to create shots that Welles wanted but didn’t have in the can.
The magic comes from Welles’s performance — a corking rendition of the doomed Scot, very theatrical but inventive and well considered. There’s even more magic in Jeanette Nolan’s Lady Macbeth. She was a radio actress who’d never worked before on stage or screen, but she’s brilliant here. She conveys a furious sexuality and an erotic rage that chill the blood.
Many of the shots, and the choreography of camera and performers within them, display Welles’s bravura style, and many of the images are boldly and beautifully lit. There are a couple of long scenes involving complex movement by the actors that play out in single shots — something Welles loved to do when he had the time and resources for it.
The film is really quite impressive considering the time and budget he did have for it. Welles hoped it would encourage Hollywood to take chances on similarly adventuresome projects that could be made cheaply, but it didn’t help that the film was a critical and commercial flop on its initial release, with many people complaining that the thick Scottish burrs Welles had the cast use made the dialogue incomprehensible.
Republic later re-released the film in a shortened version with the dialogue re-dubbed without the accents, and made its money back, but the film’s reputation never fully recovered. In fact, it’s a more than respectable work, with many fine things it. Welles’s original version is now available in a decent Blu-ray edition from Olive Films — well worth a look.